The two biggest selling albums on this year’s list are both examples of commercial, adult-orientated “rock” music that operate under intriguingly slanted parameters – albeit the “rock” epithet is used in its widest configuration, and any fascination is derived from contrasting sources.
The intelligence behind Radiohead’s The Bends is how it manages to exist as a mass-market experience without unduly compromising the particulars of its construction (a concept refined further on follow-up OK Computer, then – as momentum and focus shifted – set aside from Kid A onwards). There’s much on this that can be regarded as anthemic, but every track carries with it a sense of the finely balanced, adroitly manoeuvring against the contours of stadium rock – ‘Just’ being a prominent example. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that there’s enough feints, tricks and Jonny Greenwood sleights of hand to keep somebody like me – generally averse to the type of music sales reps play in their cars – interested.
The other record – and what to say about Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness? There’s something about the prospect of a Smashing Pumpkins double album that comes with the urge to grab survival gear, lest any extended visit to Billy Corgan’s soul leave you flattened against the rock-face in desperate need of base camp. Discs of this length have a habit of pummelling the listener into submission; this LP does so by the fourth or fifth track (The world is a vampire sings Billy on ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’ – fit to drain – and playing this album, I know the feeling). Yet there are certainly highlights; the distortion-fuelled ‘Love’. The evocation of ‘1979’. The gentle tides of ‘Thirty-Three’.
It’s certainly significant but, all things considered, Mellon Collie is far too rich for my palate. I much prefer something such as backsaturday, Prolapse’s krautrock-infused second album, which doesn’t so much arrive on the turntable as gleefully burst into the room and slap you around the chops with its haddock-scented flippers. Cunningly abrasive, waspish in both form and function, the rhythm section breathes through this like navvies digging a quarry armed with little more than pick axes and heavy-grade lager (ooh, that bass on ‘Framen Fr. Cesar’). I appreciate that this blog bangs on about the wonderment of Prolapse with some sort of metronomic regularity, but this is a stunner of a record, elevated from a great listen to something magnificent due to the fifteen-plus minutes of ‘Flex’. I’ve written about this before, yet such is its grinding urgency and boot-print physicality, I can’t not insert it beneath the words.
Elsewhere, and from the very first riffs of ‘Haunted By You’, the opening track on Gene’s début album Olympian, the references are crystal clear. Actually, even a quick glance at the LP’s artwork implies that we’re en-route to affinity with a certain Manchester band. Which is no bad thing in my book – the sound may not win any prizes for its originality, but to deliberately misquote Morrissey – this says plenty to me about my life (especially the record’s title track; elusive, deceptive, and very much of the wonderful).
And speaking of whom; Southpaw Grammar. Oh, fucking, fucking Southpaw Grammar. This was re-released in 2009 with extra tracks and (more importantly) a totally different tracklisting – dirty, dirty RCA Records; everyone knows that the eleven-plus magnificent minutes of ‘The Teachers Are Afraid Of The Pupils’ needs to be at the beginning of the disc. It acts as an anchor, something to stop us drifting away in a storm; side one, track one, and all is right with the world. Constructed around the opening bars of Shostakovitch’s Fifth Symphony, its significant footprint would leave the album in danger of feeling top-heavy if not counter-balanced by nearly-as-long final track ‘Southpaw’ As it is, Southpaw has other issues to deal with – it’s one of Morrissey’s more difficult records to process, tracks such as ‘The Boy Racer’ and ‘Dagenham Dave’ playing to the gallery somewhat (even if the latter does begin with the gorgeous, winning couplet that is Head in the clouds / and a mouth full of pie). Never mind – Maladjusted is coming up shortly; now, there’s an album to celebrate.
Quick mentions before we hit the final disc on the list. Sargasso Sea by Pram. Pygmalion, the final Slowdive LP. To Bring You My Love by PJ Harvey has a sultry, glittering, rainbow trout quality, whilst Grand Prix by Teenage Fanclub is perhaps their most accomplished, their most velvety.
Record of the year: Pure Phase by Spiritualized. Because – like, duh – it’s a J Spaceman record, and therefore symptomatic of all that is good and dreamy with the world. Earlier this year I read a highly critical newspaper review of Sweet Heart, Sweet Light, the most recent Spiritualized long player, which tore into the whole career curve for exploiting the same rigid set of thematic devices, both musical and lyrical. I recall growing quite cross at this (letters to the Editor; placard-waving outside the printing presses, etc) – because even if this were the case (which it isn’t), it’s an argument that misses both the point, and the hefty canonical weight underpinning entire swathes of Classical, Jazz, Blues, Bluegrass, Country, Folk, Electronica (repeat to fade). Because part of the allure of Spiritualized in general and Pure Phase in particular is the delicious exploitation of motif. The subtleties in a track such as ‘Electric Mainline’ are immense; the textured repetitive patterns of ‘Pure Phase’, in which the balance constantly flickers from left to right, act as some sort of spirit guide – particularly when these tones morph into the sparse beauty of ‘Spread Your Wings’.
What stands out the most from this record is the refinement of orchestration – it’s incredibly finely balanced. The flute in ‘The Slide Song’. The strings on ‘All Of My Tears’. The trombone on ‘Take Good Care Of It’. All relatively minor components of their respective songs, and yet vital in how the atmosphere is moulded around the listener’s perception. It’s these element of instrumentation that contextualise the album’s pharmaceutically-loaded moments, contrasts against the spacey licks of guitar and vox continental and farfisa. Pure Phase is quite simply a breathtaking album; delicate, graceful, pristine, and ultimately: life-affirming. Something that hits you in the pit of your stomach. Triggers patterns of illumination across the delineation of your soul. Holds you, most tenderly.
Prolapse / Flex
Gene / Olympain
Morrissey / The Teachers Are Afraid Of The Pupils
Spiritualized / Spread Your Wings
This Significant Albums series – it’ll be returning sometime in January. Between then and now, a few slices of sonic randomness, and Lazer Guided Melody’s Top Ten Albums of 2012.